Covid employer guidance updates | December 2021

New restrictions to manage Omicron variant

Updated worker self-isolation guidance for employers

The UK Health Security Agency updated its Guidance, NHS Test and Trace in the workplace on 1 December in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant.

The guidance reinforces national rules that close contacts of people who have been identified as a suspected or confirmed case of the Omicron variant of coronavirus (COVID-19) must stay at home and self-isolate, even if they are fully vaccinated or aged under 18 years and 6 months.

The guidance encourages employers to support workers if they are required to self-isolate by providing contractual or statutory sick pay as appropriate, to implement targeted asymptomatic testing in high-risk workplaces and to support the test and trace system by displaying an NHS QR code poster and have a system for non-digital users, so that people can be notified if they may have been exposed to the virus.

The guidance reminds employers they may be liable for a £1,000 fixed penalty notice if they allow a worker to attend the workplace or to work anywhere other than the place they are self-isolating, if they are aware that the worker is legally required to self-isolate.

Very recent announcements from the Prime Minister (on 8 December 2021) suggested this will change again, so that daily tests will replace self-isolation for omicron contacts, but we have yet to see the guidance updated with the detailed rules on this.

Face coverings

At 4.00am on 30 November 2021, it became a legal requirement once again for people to wear a face covering when in shops and on public transport as enforced by the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021 (SI 2021/1340).

From 10 December, the requirement to wear a facing covering was extended to include most indoor public places. You can find a full lists of places which require a mask here. However, there are some settings where wearing face masks are not legally required and these include:

  • Restaurants, cafes and canteens.
  • Bars and shisha bars.
  • Gyms & exercise facilities.
  • Photography studios.
  • Nightclubs, dance halls and discotheques.

The failure to wear a mask can trigger fixed penalty fines which can be issued by a local authority and start at £200 for the first offence and then double for repeat offences up to a maximum of £6,4000. Notably those responsible for the indoor public setting or public transport vehicle can also be subjected to a fixed penalty fine which start at £1,000 and increase for repeated offence up to a maximum of £10,000. Setting in which face coverings are required must display signage or take other measures to ensure customers are aware of the requirement to wear a face covering on their premises.

Self-isolation and booster vaccines

On the same day, the Government updated Guidance, Coronavirus: How to stay safe and help prevent the spread. The guidance covers the revised rules on self-isolation and day two PCR testing when individual's arrival back in the UK but also included the following:

  • Individuals who come into close contact with someone who has been infected with the Omicron variant must self-isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status or age i.e. those under 18 will also have to self-isolate if contacted by NHS Track and Trace. As set out above, the Prime Minister announced an intention for this rule to change to daily testing, but it is unclear when that will come into effect.
  • Booster vaccinations will become available for everyone over the age of 18 and should be taken when offered.

These measures will be reviewed in three weeks from 30 November 2021.

Required use of the NHS COVID Pass

From 15 December, certain venues and events will require a NHS COVID pass for entry. They will be required to check that all visitors aged 18 and over are fully vaccinated (currently this includes a full course of the vaccination without a need for a booster), have proof of a negative lateral flow test in the last 48 hours, or that they have an exemption.  

The following venues and events will require an NHS COVID Pass as a condition of entry:

  • Nightclubs, dancehalls and discotheques.
  • Late night dance venues that are.
    • Open between 1am and 5am.
    • Serve alcohol during this time.
    • Have a dancefloor.
    • Provide music, whether live or recorded, for dancing.
  • Indoor events with 500 or more unseated attendees where those attendees are likely to stand or move around for all or part of the event.
  • Outdoor events with 4,000 or more unseated attendees where those attendees are likely to stand or move around for all or part of the event.
  • Any events with 10,000 or more attendees indoor or outdoor.

Some settings will be exempt from requirements to use a NHS COVID Pass, including communal worship, wedding ceremonies, funerals and other commemorative events, protests and mass participation sporting events.

Pre-arrival testing

From 4.00am on 7 December, all people aged 12 and over must take a PCR or lateral flow test no earlier than 48 hours before they travel to England from abroad.

There are now 11 countries and territories on the travel red list, Nigeria added on 6 December.

Changes to Scottish vaccine certification scheme

Under the Scottish Covid-19 certification scheme, proof of vaccination is required to enter:

  • Late night venues open after midnight with alcohol and music and dancing.
  • Unseated indoor live events, with more than 500 people in the audience.
  • Unseated outdoor live events, with more than 4,000 people in the audience.
  • Any event, of any nature, which has more than 10,000 people in attendance.

From 6 December 2021, people attending venues covered by the certification scheme also have the option to provide a recent negative lateral flow test as an alternative to proof of vaccination. This should help communities such as overseas students who may have received vaccines not recognised by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and so struggle to provide proof of vaccination.

Work from home guidance in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland

People in Northern Ireland were urged on 24 November 2021 to work from home "where possible" in a bid to stop rising rates of Covid-19. The direction from ministers recognises that home working may not be possible for some employers. 

Similar guidance was issued in Scotland on 29 November 2021. The Scottish Health Secretary has advised people to work from home where possible. This is in addition to other precautionary measures including taking regular lateral flow tests, opening windows and washing hands regularly.

As part of the Government's 'Plan B', England also introduced similar guidance. From 13 December, employees will be asked to work from home where possible. Anyone who cannot work from home should continue to go into work, this includes accessing equipment necessary for their role or where their role must be completed in person. The Government has asked for those who are continuing to go into work, to considering taking lateral flow tests regularly to manage your own risk and risk to others.

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